730 W. Market Street,
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The Hiway Theater was opened December 25, 1937 with Eddie Cantor in “Ali Baba Goes to Town”. Although within the city limits it wasn’t located downtown, but rather in the city’s west end in one of the most populous neighborhoods on West Market Street at Carlisle Avenue. The Hiway Theater was a first-run theater throughout most of its existence and was owned primarily by two companies: By 1950 William Goldman Theaters Inc. of Philadelphia and later by Budco Quality Theatres. In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s it was co-owned with the Stonybrook Drive-In and Lincoln Drive-In and the newer York Cinema.
The Hiway Theater’s nicely-lit marquee featured a spectacular vertical name sign, visible in a 1945 photo. The vertical was gone by the 1970’s, perhaps removed after the Budco acquisition, when the theater was somewhat updated and renamed the New Hiway Theater.
Patrons bought their tickets at the box office, then entered through a small outer lobby with a concession stand. Through another set of doors was a carpeted inner lobby and the lounge areas. The auditorium was on one floor with 989 grayish seats. Along with walls were modernistic lighting fixtures, the type that might have been popular in the 1950’s. The Hiway Theater had an unusual design in that the ceiling was curved, like a cavern, and was painted a deep blue. The draperies covering the large screen were gold.
For a theater dating to a time before CinemaScope, the Hiway Theater featured a fairly large screen and stereophonic sound. However it was not equipped for 70mm projection. Yorkers fondly remember attending the Hiway Theater to enjoy “The Sound of Music,” which played a reserved-seat engagement after its roadshow release and drew large crowds even though it was shown in 35mm.
The downfall of the Hiway Theater began with the construction of the modern York Cinema in the suburban east end. The York Cinema was a large, modern theater on one floor. The York Cinema began getting the better features while the Hiway Theater was relegated to the martial arts, horror, blaxploitation and other exploitation pictures of the time, with a little soft-core thrown in as well. In the 1970’s the York Cinema was twinned, and shortly thereafter two more smaller screens were added. With operating a four-plex and two drive-ins, and facing inadequate parking and a declining neighborhood, Budco quietly closed the Hiway Theater in the late-1970’s.
The Hiway’s marquee remained unlit until Budco reopened it for one last summer in 1981. The format was second-run movies including “Superman II,” “The Four Seasons” and “The Howling.” Budco did little in the way of maintenance. Many of the marquee lights were burned out and little effort was made to make the theater inviting. The last mainstream picture to unreel at the Hiway Theater was “Under the Rainbow,” a lame comedy that star Chevy Chase called “one of the worst movies ever made!”
Another year passed before a third company took over, transforming it into “Hiway X.” I have to give those people credit for one thing. They completely relit the old marquee and it really looked great. They tried a few innovations for an XXX theater, bringing in “exotic dancers” to perform on stage and doing midnight movies and Three Stooges festivals. But the time had begun to pass for adult theaters and the Hiway Theater closed for good around 1983.
It sat vacant for another couple of years before being sold by the city for back taxes. The property was purchased by Olde Country Reproductions, manufacturers of decorative metal ware, which operated a factory and an outlet store next door. The marquee was removed and the lobby area demolished, leaving only the auditorium standing, which was converted to factory use. Only the triangular shape of the building shows any indication of the former Hiway Theater.
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